Backyard Tuscan Dinner

Meds for Health 2As much as I love the foods of the region and write their praises, you’d think I’d be able to spell “Mediterranean” on the first go round. There are so many points of doubt in the word. Two “d”s? Is it “i” or “a” next? I know there’s one “t” but is there a second “r?”

After an attempt or two at trying to to appease spellcheck sans help I end up opening a new tab and looking it up. Everytime. It makes me feel lesser, which is no attitude to have when starting such an inherently egotistical exercise as a blogpost. You have to believe that people will actually be interested in what you have to say.

I’m hoping that the picture above is attractive enough to entice a few readers to stick around for the recipes after the jump. Eeyore.

I don’t really care about whether the dish I’m making is authentic. If I’m in the mood for Meditar Medditer regional food, I just reach for ingredients common to whatever area I’m trying to evoke and cook, making it up as I go along for the most part.

I’ve complained on these electronic pages before about authenticity and what a silly shibboleth it is. Imagine an auditorium filled with one hundred women, all from Emilia-Romagna, all over the age of fifty, and all home cooks. Tell them they have one hour to agree on a single Ragu Bolognese recipe and then shut the door and lock them in. You wouldn’t just have a fight on your hands, you’d have a pay per view event.

Everyone home cook has their own version of whatever the local specialty is. As long as you don’t go too far afield and stick to ingredients traditionally associated with the dish, you’re making traditional [insert region] fare.

After a week of way too much heavy food I was in the mood for something healthy and light. I immediately thought Italian food because I always immediately think Italian food when I’m hungry. In particular I was thinking of Tuscany.

I haven’t been to Italy since 1996 (or so), but I still clearly remember a few meals. The single best was in Rome at a restaurant that our host, an extremely pompous but extraordinarily entertaining and likable Italian lawyer who insisted that we call him “Professor,” informed us it was a favorite of Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone along with a litany of no doubt impressive Italian names that I didn’t recognize. We started with fried squash blossoms stuffed with mild goat cheese, chilis, and anchovies, followed by bucatini al Amatriciano, followed by rack of lamb. It was amazing.

That one Roman meal aside, the best overall food of the trip was Tuscan (Full disclosure: I’m omitting a dry and sickly warm slice of pizza I tried right off the Ponte Vecchio because the pizzeria was an obvious tourist trap but we were drinking beer with a few locals on the sidewalk and buying a piece of crappy pie was the toll you payed to use the only bathroom we could find at that hour. The employees made fun of my accent when they thought I was out of earshot: “Baaanyo”). Notable were the fruits and vegetables. Of course we had meats while we were there, but the mains were kind of the sides and the sides were kind of the mains.

I mentally set a menu, gathered some ingredients that are abundant in that area and started to cook.

Meds for Health 4

For the pasta sauce toss a few glugs of olive oil in a sauce pan and sautee a medium minced shallot over medium high heat until aromatic, about a minute or two. Next add three cloves of smashed garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes and cook for about thirty seconds before adding a cup and a half of dry white wine and turn the heat up to high.

When the wine starts to boil, add five or six diced Roma tomatoes with a pinch of salt and bring it down to a simmer. Don’t bother deseeding or peeling the skin from the tomatoes. Purist may rankle at that, but a little texture from the skins is nice and helps the sauce cling to the pasta and the slight bitterness from the seeds, which is barely noticeable, actually works well with the wine.

Let the sauce simmer for about five minutes before adding 6 – 8 ounces of pitted Kalamata olives (if you are using jarred olives, drain the juices first) and a handful of thinly sliced basil. If you prefer, or if you’re in the mood for grassy over sweet, feel free to substitute flat leaf parsley for basil.

Simmer until you get the consistency you want – I usually let it go for ten minutes – while stirring occasionally, salt to taste, and serve over spaghetti cooked al dente in well salted water. Have lots of Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago on hand.

For the beans, again with a few glugs of olive oil in a sauce pan. Add a small handful of diced sweet yellow onion and sautee until they begin to turn translucent. Add half a cup of chicken stock, two cups of fresh fava beans, and then pour in enough white wine to almost cover. Bring to a boil, add a pinch of salt and drop to a low simmer. In five or so minutes, try a bean. It should be springy but cooked through. If not, let it go another minute, taste, go another, taste, etc. until you get the desired result. Just don’t wander off and let them go mushy.

Meanwhile, in a small sautee pan heat a splash of olive oil and add a handful of diced pancetta over medium high heat. Cook until there are a few crisp pieces and then remove to a paper towel covered plate to drain.

Use a slotted spoon to serve the beans and top with a sprinkling of pancetta. I used a little red onion as garnish just because I had some on hand. As it turned out the raw red onion was a great addition. I wish I could say I planned it.

Finally, I chopped up some cantaloupe and tossed it with sliced mint, crumbled feta, and a very small amount of simple red wine vinaigrette (olive oil, red wine, and salt.) While it might sound odd, I read about black pepper on cantaloupe recently, so I added a healthy amount of freshly ground black pepper. I’ll be doing that again.

With simple meals I like simple wines. There are a great many sangiovese heavy bottles that would do well here. The default for most people is Chianti, but I’ve always wondered if Chianti was just better than its neighbors at grabbing the attention of wine drinkers than making a better wine. There are several other appellations (or sub-appellations – I’m rusty on my DOCGs) that are just as good in my opinion but not as well known and thus cheaper. If you can find one, I think a Morellino di Scansano delivers the same quality as Chianti at around 75% of the cost so long as you are shopping in the under twenty dollar range.

If it wasn’t for the absurd Alabama humidity, the complete lack of accordion music in the background, and the fact that I had a baseball game playing on my laptop, my backyard could have been mistaken for Tuscany by someone who had neither been to Birmingham nor Tuscany. But the food would not have been out of place in Florence, Siena, or San Gimignano.

 

 

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